After a disappointing early playoff exit, I think it's easy for us to agree that the Syracuse Crunch played over their heads through the season. They were a hard team to play against much of the 2014-15 season, but ultimately were done in by goaltending that cooled off down the stretch and the lack of even minimal offense when the play got tighter.
A lot of Crunch fans were unhappy with the way the Tampa Bay Lightning organization built the team for the season. I think it's a mixed fairness to take that view for a few reasons. The Lightning's first priority will always be icing a winner in Tampa. The second priority will be developing players to play in the NHL. And after that comes icing a winner in Syracuse. Granted, there exists a belief that the third is an important ingredient in the second, but the NHL team will always be the first priority. That means that when there is an injury or an opening in the Tampa Bay lineup, they won't hesitate to bring up the Crunch player that will most help the NHL team win even if it takes away from the Crunch's chances of winning.
The Lightning could have done more at the trade deadline to bolster the Crunch, but what would they have given up? If it would have taken a third or fourth round pick to get a veteran AHL scorer just to try to push the Crunch a littler further, would that be worth it to the team's future? A third round pick should have at least a decent chance of making an NHL roster at some point in his career. That's a lot to give up for a vet that may never play in the NHL again just for a handful of wins in the AHL. The organization must always balance the view of the future with the view of the present.
With that said, the organization also got hit by the injury bug and the Crunch suffered from some inconsistent play and didn't have the depth to cover everything up. Losing both Phillippe Paradis and Mike Blunden gutted the Top 6 forwards. Blunden had 13 goals and 9 assists for 22 points in 33 games before being lost for the year to injury. Paradis hadn't produced quite as much with only 8 goals and 7 assists for 15 points in 34 goals before also being lost to injury. That's still two players that were playing in the top 6 and producing at two thirds and just less than half a point per game respectively.
Right wing Jerome Samson only produced a single goal and 7 assists in 26 games for the Crunch before being released to take a shot in the Swiss league. This is a guy that put up 27 goals and 29 assists in 68 games for the Rockford Ice Hogs in the AHL the year before and overall has a 0.76 points per game scoring rate in his AHL career. It's easy to imagine how much better the Crunch might have been down the stretch with Paradis and Blunden in the lineup and with Samson producing at his previous levels. With those three producing, they may not have ever missed Namestnikov being out of the lineup.
With that all said, let’s take a look at a projection for the forwards for next season. Next week, we'll have defense and goalies and a little peek ahead to the future.
|Yanni Gourde||Tanner Richard||Adam Erne|
|Carter Ashton||Matthew Peca||Phillippe Paradis|
|Cam Darcy||Cody Kunyk||Joel Vermin|
|Henri Ikonen||Mike Angelidis||David Broll|
Other than Mike Angelidis, this is only including players that are currently under team control. I strongly believe that the organization needs to bring back Mike Angelidis. He is the Captain, the heart and soul, and a consummate professional. I think it bodes well that the organization rewarded Angelidis with a recall at the end of the regular season when they needed a bottom line forward and had him on the Black Aces squad after Syracuse was eliminated in the playoffs. He’s past his prime as an NHL prospect and settled in as a solid AHL veteran that is as much an assistant coach as a player in his ability to set an example for the youngsters. The organization would prefer to have him on an AHL deal, but I think he's worth investing a two-way NHL contract on for at least another year.
With Vladislav Namestnikov and Jonathan Marchessault both becoming waiver eligible next season, neither will most likely end up in Syracuse. Marchessault has shown enough in the AHL to get an opportunity in the NHL and will likely end up as an extra forward for the Bolts, especially after playing several games with the Lightning during the 2015 playoffs despite his lack of experience. I feel he is just good enough that he would be lost on waivers to another team that isn't as deep at forward to give him an opportunity to play third line minutes much like what happened to fRichard Panik.
Tanner Richard only projects as a fourth line forward in the NHL. That doesn't mean he can’t be a producer at the AHL level. Unfortunately, he will likely enter the year as the team’s best option as a first line center and will be expected to dish the puck to talented small guy, Yanni Gourde. Gourde took a huge step forward last season and will need to continue to produce at the same level to earn a chance in the NHL. Adam Erne has only a 50-50 chance in my opinion to make the Lightning out of training camp. I think it will be better for him to start in the AHL and get used to the speed. He is a scarce player type for the Lightning being one of the few power forward players in the whole organization. He can be a force for the Crunch on the list line, but may end up being lost to the NHL mid-way through the season. Sorry Crunch fans, don’t get too attached to Erne because you probably won’t be watching him for long.
Carter Ashton is a former first rounder and has some spunk. He’s probably mis-cast as a 2nd liner even in the AHL as he is more of a grinder which makes him an awkward fit here with Paradis on the other side. Matthew Peca is the quintessential second line center. A two-way player, he’s defensively sound and a playmaker. Crunch fans should get excited about his potential and it should take a couple years of seasoning before he’s getting his shot in the NHL. He would also be an option to be the 1st line forward if he shows strongly in training camp. Crunch fans know what Paradis brings to a line as a bumper and banger. Get a sniper on the left wing in Ashton’s spot and that would be a nice second line. His injuries were unfortunate and he is an RFA this offseason. I don't see a reason to not re-sign him to a one-year deal with how he contributed before the injury.
Cody Kunyk came on a bit better than I thought he would this year and should be a fine third line center for the Crunch next season if the organization brings him back on another contract. Cam Darcy would add some playmaking skill to the line with a little bit of finish. He could also just as easily be the center with Kunyk on the wing of this line. Joel Vermin really came on and took a step forward contributing 33 points in 73 games. I’d like to see him do even more and produce even better in the AHL. He’s got a chance to be a third line pest in the NHL, but he must produce in the AHL to show he can do that. When he shows he can produce, he should move up the depth chart in Syracuse.
On the bottom end of the line up, you can expect hard play from Ikonen, Angelidis, and Broll. If there was ever a traditional fourth line, you’ve got it right there. Dalton Smith and likely some other veteran depth forwards will also be here and ready to filter into the fourth line. Eric Neilsen could be back for another year especially considering his popularity in Syracuse despite not getting on the ice much last season.
The needs I see are another scoring winger for the top 6 on either side and probably another depth player or two to fill in the gaps when Erne gets called up. Erne can play left and right wing so that gives some flexibility to the team to mix and match where needed. Blunden would be a great player to re-sign and I really want to see the organization bring him back. He got into a couple NHL games and was fine as a fourth line depth player. His veteran example along with his AHL offensive ability would be a great asset with the Crunch again. Another center that can push Kunyk for playing time on the third line would also be a good pick up as I have questions about Darcy’s ability to do so.
The needed players could come as AHL veteran free agents, draft picks out of Europe, or overage North American juniors players picked late in the 2015 NHL entry draft. Building better AHL depth that will play in the ECHL and be ready when needed will also be key for the organization. Brendan O’Donnell is also currently Lightning property after having finished his NCAA eligibility this season. He was not a slam dunk to get an ELC, but could be a candidate for an AHL contract to provide wing depth for the Crunch while playing in the ECHL.